Britain's gay MPs: out of the closet but not yet equal

It is the age-old argument: that giving gays equality somehow undermines the family
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COMING OUT isn't what it used to be. This week Labour MPs are popping out like corks out of champagne bottles to tell us that they just happen to be happy homosexuals. More are to follow, apparently, now that the closet door is not so much ajar but wide open.

The general reaction to these announcements of gayness appears to be one of utter indifference. The tabloids can't even be bothered to work themselves up about it, preferring to concentrate on the fortunes of those glorious models of heterosexuality: Ulrika and Stan, Gazza and Sheryl.

David Borrow, MP for South Ribble, came out on Monday; Gordon Marsden, the MP for Blackpool South, declared his homosexuality three days later. What prompted them were not fears of being "outed", either by gay activists or by the media, but the forthcoming vote on lowering the age of consent for homosexuals from 18 to 16.

It is a free vote, and one that is expected to be passed with a big majority. Although David Borrow has said that one tabloid newspaper has been doorstepping his family, and friends among his constituents, the response has been muted. "I had the impression that most people are not particularly bothered."

This mirrors the comment made by Angela Eagle when I interviewed her last year; that most people are far more sensible than we give them credit for. When she came out as a lesbian the most hostile comments she received were mainly from people saying that they really were not interested in what she did in her private life. It wasn't that they objected to her sexuality; they did not want it "forced down their throats".

Such remarks show just how far we are from treating gay and straight people as equal. While robust heterosexuality is shoved down our throats every minute of the day, any mention of homosexuality is seen as slightly distasteful, as confrontational and as being "a little more information than we need to know right now".

Generally, however, if we want a real sign of Cool Britannia, we can forget all the rubbish about pop stars hanging out at No 10 and simply look at our more relaxed attitudes to homosexuality.

Political culture is belatedly reflecting the changes in popular culture that have occurred throughout the last decade. I remember wondering, when I attended Diana's funeral, and Elton John walked in with his boyfriend and George Michael, was there ever seriously a time when Elton tried to persuade us that he was not really gay, or bald for that matter? Well, yes, there was, and thankfully that time has gone.

The more public figures come out, the less we are interested. Isn't this a good thing ?

Homosexuality may be uncontroversial to some but it still has shock value for others. Matthew Parris has suggested that these MPs are doing it just to get attention. Strange days indeed when, in order to be remotely significant or interesting as a politician, it is necessary to announce an attraction to the same sex.

Still, it's all in a day's work. As we already know, some of Tony Blair's best friends are gay or gayish, or of the new kind of sexual persuasion that means that you can be gay in the sophisticated south but not in the priggish north. The good people of Hartlepool are still considered too delicate to be told straightforwardly that their MP is gay.

Perhaps this is irrelevant. Yet what is being fostered is a false sense of equality, a feeling that once the age of consent comes down, gay people will have nothing to fight for any more.

It may well be the case that many members of this government are personally comfortable with homosexuality, but politically they are still dawdling behind the Lib Dems in their policies towards gays. The Government is eager to fall into line with the changes that have taken place in mainstream culture, rather than set the pace. On gays in the military, equal partnership rights, on laws on sexual discrimination, on the recognition of gay-bashing as a hate crime, Labour still has a long way to go.

It is not enough to have a few openly gay MPs, all of whom have to conform to some sensible idea of homosexuality as exactly the same as heterosexuality, ie we all live in long-term monogamous relationships with our wonderfully supportive partners. Whatever happened to the idea of equal but different? Are there no gay people left who live for sex and shopping - or is that a homophobic remark in an era of such overwhelming sensibleness?

Since a vigorous sex life has become compulsory, we are really more interested in the likes of Ann Widdecombe, who despite never having done it knows for a fact that sex is overrated. She could be right, since heterosexuality itself now appears to be in such a sorry state that men can have sex with women only after they have taken drugs that may kill them, and women can enjoy sex only if they, too, pop a few pills.

Personally I think we should dispense with the sex and just take drugs, but in such a scenario being gay no longer seems outrageous; it is beginning to look like the sanest and safest option.

This doesn't mean that there isn't still a lot to fight for, and we shouldn't be fooled into a laissez-faire approach to gay rights just because there are a few gay MPs.

Last week in the Lords, Baroness Blackstone revealed in a debate about the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Bill (SOD for short) proposed by Baroness Turner, just what lies at the heart of this government's attitude to homosexuality.

The Bill, she said, "invites us to treat same-sex couples as the equivalent of a family unit, which leads logically to treating all mixed-sex couples as the equivalent of a family unit."

She explained that while taking account of social reality, "marriage has provided for millions of people a strong and stable base for the bringing up of children in a rapidly changing society", and so she would not do anything that would "undermine the family". Here again, the central values of marriage and family are counterpoised to the threat of homosexuality.

This is the age-old argument: that giving gays equality somehow undermines the family; and it is shocking that this government is still prepared to make it.

When are those in power going to realise that many of us, gay, straight, and too tired to know the difference, will continue to live, in the infamous words of Section 28, in "pretended family relationships", and reflect this in law? This is the issue that we should be bothered about.

So don't be fooled by a few well-groomed MPs coming out. Don't be fooled by gay people being given the right to have sex at 16. To confuse a more comfortable attitude towards homosexuality with real equality is to construct a new kind of closet altogether, albeit one with slightly more room to move around in than before.